Very few, if at all, of the present generation Indians would have even heard of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who was a pioneer among women participants in the Indian freedom movement. Braving a succession of domestic disasters—loss of parents, widowhood in her teens, disappoint-ment in remarriage-Kamaladevi was in the vanguard of the country’s freedom struggle as a socialist and thereafter as a key figure in the co-operative movement and in promoting the arts.
Fourth and youngest daughter of a Saraswat Brahmin family of Mangalore, Kamaladevi was born in 1903 in a well-off emancipated family. April 3 was her one hundred-and-fourth birth anniversary. While her father was a District Collector in South Kanara district in the then Madras Presidency, her mother, Girijamma hailed from an aristocratic family. Kamaladevi imbibed not only structured learning but also discipline of a high order at the Christian Mission School where she studied. On top of that the home environment shaped her outlook and endowed in her with a liberal attitude. She was Mahatma Gandhi’s choice, along with Sarojini Naidu, to participate the novel salt satyagraha in 1930 to make the British Government responsive to the people’s basic needs. It involved violating the law against making salt from seawater and touched the heart of millions of Indians.
A succession of tragedies befell Kamaladevi early in life. First, her elder sister, Saguna, whom she adored as a role model, died in her teens soon after an early marriage. Not long after, her father passed away. To compound the tragedy, he did not will his property between his wife and surviving daughter on the one hand and a son by his first marriage on the other. So, according to the prevailing law, the male heir inherited the property leaving Kamaladevi and her mother in the lurch. Even now, nearly seventy years after independence, there is no uniform law in India giving daughters an equal or even a smaller share in ancestral property. Some States have such laws, others do not.
In the wake of the tragedy, Kamaladevi was married off at the age of fourteen in 1917 when she was still in the high school. Her mother was diffident of bringing up a fatherless teenager single-handedly, especially when she was herself not too well. Kamaladevi’s husband died within a year of the marriage. So 15-year old Kamaladevi became a widow. Her father-in-law was unusually liberal-minded. He enabled Kamaladevi to pursue her studies and also advised her to re-marry.
Having finished high school in Mangalore, Kamaladevi joined Queen Mary’s College in Madras, where she developed friendship with Suhasini Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu’s younger sister who was also studying there. The Chattopadhyays, a celebrated family of Calcutta, set up an establishment in Madras for Suhasini’s education. More members of the family, including Suhasini’s elder brother, Harindranath (Harin), gravitated there. It was a matter of time before she and Harin, poet, playwright and actor, became intimate. Harin was vivacious and also handsome. Very soon the two fell in love.
By the time Kamaladevi was twenty, she married Harin, in her second marriage. They had shared interests in the arts, especially theatre and music, and the two also collaborated to produce plays and skits. It was said even the gods would envy the couple, highly personable, versatile, gifted and outgoing in their different ways. Their only son, Ramu, was born in the following year. Whether it be due to the envy of the gods or cupidity of human nature, the Harin-Kamaladevi marriage did not endure. He began an affair with an abandoned woman whom Kamaladevi engaged to look after their son. Outraged, Kamaladevi called it day as far as living with Harin was concerned.
After independence while some nationalist leaders assumed the responsibility of running the administration, others, notably the Socialists, opted for an Opposition role to strive for a two-party system and to bring their socialist preference to bear on policy-making, Kamaladevi represented a third category of leaders who took up non-governmental constructive work. She set out to establish co-operatives. As running co-operatives came naturally to women, she involved herself in the activities of the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC), not as a fiery feminist. Among specific campaign issues taken up by Kamaladevi and her colleagues was plugging the loopholes in the Sarada Act, as the Prevention of Child Marriage Act was known. Kamaladevi’s approach was two-fold: to expose and fight against gender injustice of all kinds and simultaneously to strive for the uplift of women. In that context, she planted the seed for what later became the Lady Irwin College in New Delhi by campaigning for improving the quality and practical value of women’s education.
Meanwhile, the post-partition situation offered a ready-made problem for Kamaladevi to take up. Tens of thousands of refugees from mainly west Punjab were in Delhi looking for shelter and work. Many of them had lost vast property when they fled their hearths and homes in the wake of mass killings. As many as 10,000 of them were huddled in tents and makeshift shelters in and around Delhi. Pucca buildings like bungalows and homes vacated by Muslims who had migrated to Pakistan were evacuee property to be allotted by the government to the dispossessed from Pakistan. But it was a time-consuming process, whereas the approaching Delhi winter would make miserable the lives of the men, women and children in makeshift habitats. Kamaladevi decided that co-operative house building was the solution. It was a long-term problem, in fact a problem for life as far as the refugees were concerned.
There was no possibility of their going back to the property that they were forced to abandon in Pakistan. Secondly, it would be callous and inhuman to expect them to live in the makeshift structures until the government was able to rehabilitate them. Running free kitchens and providing doles to them would be an insult to the pride of the Punjabis for whom living on alms was anathema. The result was the Indian Co-operative Union, which established co-operative farms-cum-houses at Chattarpur and Jaitpur in the Mehrauli area off the Qutab Minar. The idea was that the refugees would resume their traditional occupation of farming by growing vegetables and some grain also on land to be given to them on a co-operative basis.
Simultaneously, when the Chattarpur farm was on its feet, Kamaladevi embarked on an industrial township at Faridabad (now in Haryana) where 30,000 refugees were settled. Dr Rajendra Prasad, the future President of India, had agreed to be the Chairman of the Faridabad Development Board set up under the umbrella of the Indian Co-operative Union. Then came the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, a government establishment. It included pottery, woodwork, carvings, metal artefacts, jewellery, furniture and accessories, and decorative items besides designer clothes. Through training courses for talent scouted from different parts of the country with the accent on ethnic traditions, the Emporium has grown into a workshop for imparting new skills to artisans, weavers and craftspersons besides marketing their handiwork.
Concurrently, Kamaladevi launched the Indian National Theatre (INT) as a means for the national movement to find expression through the arts, including theatre, with her natural flair for the theatre as an instrument of educating the people and spreading awareness of values in them while reviving the nation’s cultural heritage. The entertainment dimension was an added boon. The INT, which had been confining itself to largely Gujarati plays, made a debut in Delhi with a ballet in English based on Nehru’s book, The Discovery of India, highlighting the pan-Asian aspect of Indian nationalism. It was staged at the 1946 Asian Relations Conference at Purana Qila in Delhi. Overwhelmed, Nehru said the ballet was “much better than my book”.
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